Black, Queer and Neurodivergent: Janelle Monáe’s ‘The Age of Pleasure’ Dives Into Play, Joy and Creativity

Buy a vibrator! Find a mental health professional! It’s all part of The Age of Pleasure’s long, summery journey to freedom.

“How are you preparing for The Age of Pleasure?”

This is a question Janelle Monáe asks Black queer pleasure-seekers in the trailer for their new album, a pastiche of 1990s MTV Spring Break that finds them interviewing F.A.M. (an acronym for freeassmothaf*ckas) on P(leasure)TV.  Answers spill joyfully: Masturbating! Wearing whatever I want! Going to therapy!

A self-loving summer break from mainstream media’s long year of sex-negativity and body-policing, Monáe’s Age of Pleasure invites listeners to a reggae-rich oasis where Black partygoers bask in love for their own bodies and those of the many-gendered people around them. It also invites F.A.M. to love our queer brains—the under-appreciated curves of autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or general ‘too-much’-ness—as loudly, proudly and playfully as we love our bodies.

Buy a vibrator! Find a mental health professional! It’s all part of “Pleasure’s” long, summery journey to freedom.

Riding a reggae beat to new latitudes, Monáe’s recently released music draws on neurodivergence as a source of play, pleasure, joy and creativity that flows within and throughout Black queerness. Days before the release of 2018’s Dirty Computer, Monáe ended years of speculation about their sexuality by coming out to Rolling Stone as “queer” and “a free-ass motherfucker.’”

Preparing for The Age of Pleasure, they returned to Rolling Stone to come about something, arguably, more surprising and stigmatized: their recent diagnosis with an anxiety disorder—OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)—and intensive work with an emotional support coach.

Similar to her self-identification as queer (which I share), Monáe’s revelation of an anxiety disorder also opened a new side of her music to me. I know something about OCD because it runs in my family; my twenty-something eating disorder is one form of it. Characterized by uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions), OCD is common: the fourth most common psychiatric disorder and tenth leading cause of disability worldwide. But it is also commonly misunderstood, caricatured as over-the-top neatness or pathologized as crippling fear.

Actually, as Jon Herschfield wrote, someone with OCD “has a spectacular mind. The way an OCD sufferer perceives the world is as if it has unlimited potential. Anything that can be thought of is possible, no matter how unlikely, and this is actually a good thing (sometimes). It fosters ingenuity, creativity, empathy, and a strong sense of humor. But it also comes with a burden, a painful awareness that everything is inherently uncertain and even the worst events imaginable are possible.”

Luxuriating in unlimited Black queer potential for pleasure—while staying present, even taking pleasure in life’s inherent uncertainty—The Age of Pleasure experiments with a therapeutic process as much as an artistic one. 

What if we took Monáe’s reggae inspiration seriously and really, really emancipated ourselves from mental slavery?

“Most people don’t understand what’s going on in my brain,” Monáe said of their OCD. “It’s beautiful that I have a title called The Age of Pleasure because it actually re-centers me. It’s not about an album anymore. I’ve changed my whole fucking lifestyle.” 

A sea change to a career built around fast-paced Afrofuturism and buttoned-up tuxes, Monáe’s new Age celebrates slow kisses, bare breasts and what feels good now. 

“I used to consider myself a futurist. I know what that means, to obsess about the next thing. A present tourist is what I’m calling myself right now. I’m actively focusing on being present,” they said.

What keeps Monáe’s lyrics in the present on The Age of Pleasure is sun-kissed, ocean-deep, lusciously melanated Black queer love.

Love that slows down to prolong pleasure: “Skin to skin, I wanna take my time/Break it in, I wanna make you mine” they sing with fluid Ghanaian-American artist Amaaraeon on “The Rush.” 

Love that paces itself to the infinite potentials of polyamory: “I like to love with my eyes closed/I try not to lead with my ego/Everything happened in slo-mo/But we all smile and say, ‘It’s alright,’” they sing on “Only Have Eyes 42.”

Love that embraces impermanence and makes the most of it: “I wanna feel your lips on mine/ I just wanna feel/ A little tongue, we don’t have a long time,” they croon on “Lipstick Lover.”

The video for this last song is set in a palm-shaded poolside oasis of Black femme pleasure-lovers luxuriating in jiggling asses, full lips, underwater kisses, candy-colored vibrators and hip-to-hip dancing. It offers a fantasy recreation of the COVID-era pool parties that Monáe used to host at Wondaland West, the LA estate where she relocated in 2020. By no means an unusual setting for a pool-themed video, LA is nonetheless a charged site to imagine Black neurodivergence in 2023.

The first week of this year, Los Angeles police killed three Black men in the grip of a mental health crises. Already viewed as threatening because of their race, mentally ill Black folks become terrifying to state agents because of their neurodivergence—and, as a result, become terrifyingly vulnerable to state, sexual and social violence. What makes neurodivergence scary to live with or encounter isn’t OCD, autism or BPD themselves—it’s the psychological ableism that demonizes these conditions as failings, limitations, dangers or unending pain.

But, what if, instead, we could see neuroprisms of the kind of color-soaked pleasure-scapes that Monáe creates as spaces to live wholly with their OCD—and their Blackness, their queerness, their freeness? What if we could all bare the curves and twists of our minds as openly as lovers bare their asses and tits in “Lipstick Lover”? What if we took Monáe’s reggae inspiration seriously and really, really emancipated ourselves from mental slavery—really let ourselves free our minds?

Then and only then, lovers, will we be ready to travel to the Age of Pleasure Monáe invites us to join.

Up next:

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Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley is professor of Black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of books including Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism (2016) and The Color Pynk: Black Femme Art for Survival (forthcoming).